In May, I participated in the Feminist Performance Festival in Chicago, organized by E. Patrick Johnson and their Northwestern colleagues in performance studies and women’s studies. (Seemy blog post with a description and my remarks.) I’m posting here the transcript of the conversation I moderated with performers Holly Hughes, Rhodessa Jones, and Lenelle Moise on May 20, 2011. After this teaser, the conversation continues in the full transcript on jilldolan.org.
Jill Dolan: Thank you so much. I’m very happy to be here. I want to thank Patrick, Ann and Ramón for the invitation and also for doing this work. It’s important to devote time to feminist performance in this day and age, so I’m really happy to be part of this whole project. . . . There are many different things we can talk about today. I thought we might start with the question of feminism. Do you call yourself a feminist? Is the label meaningful to you in terms of your practice? Are there other labels you prefer? I know a lot of artists prefer not to label their work at all, but I’m curious how you situate yourself around this issue. Anyone want to start?
Rhodessa Jones: The piece I’m going to do Saturday night — Big Butt Girls, Hardheaded Women— I made it almost 20-22 years ago. I made the piece because I was inspired by my work with incarcerated women — which was based on interviews and inspired by Anna Deavere Smith — talking to women inside and making a piece. I was invited to the Women and Theater Program annual convention in Boston. They wanted to work with women who were working in institutions like jail. I made this piece for that particular event, and then when I returned home, it already had caused a big stir across the country. When I got back to the San Francisco county jails, they already were talking about this piece I had made. Some men from the jail came to me — the educational facility — and said, “Would you be willing to show this piece, Big Butt Girls, to the community as a way to introduce yourself in” something I had called “‘living on the outside’“? I was going to be working with men and women from the work-furlough program. I said, “You have to remember it’s a feminist theater piece.” They said, “We’ll remember.”
For my very first show, they brought me 70 men. 70 men watched Big Butt Girls in a public performance. I said “feminist” because I wanted it understood it was going to be from a woman’s perspective and a woman’s voice, so that was where “feminist” worked. Most of the time I think of myself as a womanist. When my daughter, who is 46, gets upset with me, she says, “Oh, mom, you’re a feminist.” It’s like, That’s supposed to make me understand how I’m a little kooked. “You’re a feminist.”
Holly Hughes: I came to art marking, really, as a feminist. I went to an alternative feminist art school. I can’t believe 30-something years ago the women who ran the Heresies Collective in New York for quite a number of years — who were artists and scholars and activists and made this amazing magazine — felt education really was the link between our practice and our political beliefs and donated their time to start The New York Feminist Art Institute. Feminism had such cultural power The New York Feminist Art Institute was featured in all the papers and politicians came to the opening, even though we didn’t have any tables or chairs.
I was new to New York and I didn’t know the trash was very good. Who needed the store when you had the streets? But, probably, if you had asked me this 20 years ago, I would have been aware of all the problems of feminism, particularly around pornography and the sensorium. I would have been, “Yes,” but with an eye roll. Of course today — the spectacular week of men behaving badly with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the head of the IMF [Dominique Strauss-Kahn], which I think stands for “I am fucked” —
and then the story in Psychology Today. Do people know about this story in Psychology Today? The story about some guy who got research funded to have his ratings system of women, so it’s already rating women and their attractiveness, but it’s all stacked to have the idea why, scientifically, African-American women are not as attractive, so that’s bad enough, but then it’s a cover story inPsychology Today. This week I am particularly a feminist.
Particularly after I got my first adult job at the age of 46 after being a waitress and a temp worker, and then a freelance artist, oddly enough, which allowed me to be a feminist queer person because nobody paid any more attention to me than a person with a real job. Then it was, like, “Oh yeah, this is still going on.”
Lenelle Moise: I’m comfortable with the word “feminist.” I’m more comfortable with the word “womanist.” I am a poet, so I recognize these are words. I really get frustrated sometimes when I go to a feminist circle or conference and the discussion stops with whether or not young women in the room are calling themselves feminists and honoring the feminists who came before. It seems to be a generational conversation, but it stops there. It’s always, “Why aren’t you calling yourself a feminist?” That’s what makes me uncomfortable because it’s a stagnant point and feminism to me is about doing, so if we’re just talking, that’s a removed, easy, passive discussion. So yes, I’m comfortable with the words, but now what?
JD: Right. That’s a very good point. I’m thinking too from all your remarks about how much this word and what it means has changed over time both for all of us and for the culture. I’m wondering, How at this point does or doesn’t feminism enhance or make possible your larger goals as an artist? What are your larger goals as an artist? How do politics in general inform your goals as an artist? Go ahead, Holly.
Yeah, get the solo. One quick thought is in 30 years it’s a lot easier — in certain circumstances, although not necessarily in the place where I work — to say, “I’m gay” or “I’m a lesbian” or whatever — “a fucking dyke” — whatever it is, depending on my mood ring
than it is to say, “I’m a feminist.” At the same time, queer politics has gotten bogged down to whether you’re LGBT or you’re gay or do we have enough letters? These are important — we’re writers — these are important, but everything stopped there. A political reading of situations is present in every moment of our lives. Like a visual reading — like readings and interpretations and ways of understanding every other moment — thinking about gender and sexuality and other political realities is present in our daily actions and to say not also is a political act, so that’s something that’s very present for me.
RJ: I remember the meetings in San Francisco on Valencia Street — feminist meetings — and men (crazy, truck-driving, straight, basically white guys) who would hear about a meeting and attempt to disrupt a meeting. I am 62 years old, so I remember. I would say to women, “My brothers are going to come,” because my mother would say to my brothers, “You go in there and get your sister after ten o’clock,” and having women want to argue this was not political with me (my brothers coming to get me). My mother would say, “If them white people going crazy over there, you go in there and get your sister out of there.”
They said, “He’s your brother, he’s a man and he’s a male figure.” I said, “No, let my brother through,” and then I let my brother, Gus, come. Her is six-five and 300 pounds and nobody can stop him.
That was one of the first things that really dawned on me about where we were with feminism, who it’s for, who gets to wear it, its flavor, how it fits into my existence and being told there was something wrong with me because I still associated with my brothers. At the same time, Alice Walker introduced the word “womanist.” All women bleed. I remember being in London — oh, this was 20-25 years ago — and running through the airport trying to catch my plane. An English woman comes up to me — an English rose — and says, “Darling, you have a spot on your skirt.” “Oh, my God, a spot on my skirt.” Which was very feminist to me because she said, “Come, come, come, I’ll help you.” She escorts me into the restroom and I say, “Anybody got a Tampax?” Every woman in the bathroom —
Pakistani, African, everybody — had sponge, cotton and twine.
I thought, This is feminist, this is feminist to me. Nobody said, “Oh, girl, please.” No, it was like, “Oh, darling,” and everybody was willing to help me get the stain out of my skirt, so it’s that basic to me. Even when I talk to incarcerated women, I go there because, as you pointed out, the word “feminist” has been diminished and even in a population like jail don’t nobody want to hear that. That’s slang.
I also remember Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. I’ve still gotten a lot of trouble by saying “vagina” in women’s prisons by other women who take an affront to it. I’m asked not to read “My Angry Vagina.” I remember the first time I read an article in which Eve Ensler was saying she was having trouble with her publicist about using the title The Vagina Monologues. She said, “What do we call it? The Cunt Chronicles?
The Pussy Papers?” All this stuff is a part of how I engage when I think about feminism, feminist theater and feminist approach, and then I’m right in it. I’m in it. I’m one of the gang.
LM: I notice they call our work “political” when we know we’re human beings. I notice that. So yes, my work is political because I know I’m a human being and I know the people I love and grew up with, and care about and see, are people.
JD: You want to add anything, Holly?
[Full transcript continues on page 6, jilldolan.org.]
The Feminist Spectator